IF I say that I have just been very much amused with a Nativity play of the fourteenth century it is still possible that I may be misunderstood. What is more important, some thousand years of very heroic history will be misunderstood too. It was one of the Coventry cycle of mediaeval plays, loosely called the Coventry Mysteries, similar to the Chester Mysteries and the Towneley Mysteries.
And I was not amused at the blasphemy of something badly done, but at a buffoonery uncommonly well done. But, as I said at the time, the educated seem to be very ignorant of this fine mediaeval fun. When I mentioned the Coventry Mystery many ladies and gentlemen thought it was a murder in the police news. At the best, they supposed it to be the title of a detective story. Even upon a hint of history they could only recall the story of Godiva; which might be called rather a revelation than a mystery.
Now I always read police news and I sometimes write detective stories; nor am I at all ashamed of doing either. But I think the popular art of the past was perhaps a little more cheerful than that of the present. And in seeing this Bethlehem drama I felt that good news might perhaps be as dramatic as bad news; and that it was possibly as thrilling to hear that a child is born as to hear that a man is murdered.
Doubtless there are some sentimental people who like these old plays merely because they are old. My own sentiment could be more truly stated by saying that I like them because they are new. They are new in the imaginative sense, making us feel as if the first star were leading us to the first child.
But they are also new in the historical sense, to most people, owing to that break in our history which makes the Elizabethans seem not merely to have discovered the new world but invented the old one. Nobody could see this mediaeval play without realizing that the Elizabethan was rather the end than the beginning of a tradition; the crown and not the cradle of the drama.
Many things that modern critics call peculiarly Elizabethan are in fact peculiarly mediaeval. For instance, that the same stage could be the place where meet the extremes of tragedy and comedy, or rather farce. That daring mixture is always made a point of contrast between the Shakespearean play and the Greek play or the French classical play. But it is a point of similarity, or rather identity, between the Shakespearean play and the miracle play.
Nothing could be more bitterly tragic than the scene in this Nativity drama, in which the mothers sing a lullaby to the children they think they have brought into safety the moment before the soldiers of Herod rush in and butcher them screaming on the stage. Nothing could be more broadly farcical than the scene in which King Herod himself pretends that he has manufactured the thunderstorm.
In one sense, indeed, the old religious play was far bolder in its burlesque than the more modern play. Shakespeare did not express the unrest of King Claudius by making him fall over his own cloak. He did not convey his disdain for tyranny by letting Macbeth appear with his crown on one side. This was partly no doubt an improvement in dramatic art; but it was partly also, I think, a weakening of democratic satire.
Shakespeare's clowns are philosophers, geniuses, demigods; but Shakespeare's clowns are clowns. Shakespeare's kings may be usurpers, murderers, monsters; but Shakespeare's kings are kings. But in this old devotional drama the king is the clown. He is treated not so much with disdain as with derision; not so much with a bitter smile as with a broad grin. A cat may not only look at a king but laugh at a king; like the mythical Cheshire cat, an ancient cat as terrible as a tiger and grinning like a gargoyle. But that Cheshire cat has presumably vanished with the Chester Mysteries, the counterpart of these Coventry Mysteries; it has vanished with the age and art of gargoyles.
In other words, that popular simplicity that could see wrongful power as something pantomimically absurd, a thing for practical jokes, has since been sophisticated by a process none the less sad because it is slow and subtle. It begins in the Elizabethans in an innocent and indefinable form. It is merely the sense that, though Macbeth may get his crown crookedly, he must not actually wear it crooked. It is the sense that, though Claudius may fall from his throne, he must not actually fall over his footstool.
It ended in the nineteenth century in many refined and ingenuous forms; in a tendency to find all fun in the ignorant or criminal classes; in dialect or the dropping of aitches. It was a sort of satirical slumming. There was a new shade in the comparison of the coster with the cat; a coster could look at a king and might conceivably laugh at a king; but most contemporary art and literature, was occupied in laughing at the coster.
Even in the long lifetime of a good comic paper like Punch we can trace the change from jokes against the palace to jokes against the public-house. The difference is perhaps more delicate; it is rather that the refined classes are a subject for refined comedy; and only the common people a subject for common farce. It is correct to call this refinement modern; yet it is not quite correct to call it contemporary. All through the Victorian time the joke was pointed more against the poor and less against the powerful; but the revolution which ended the long Victorian peace has shaken this Victorian patronage. The great war which has brought so many ancient realities to the surface has re-enacted before our eyes the Miracle Play of Coventry.
We have seen a real King Herod claiming the thunders of the throne of God, and answered by the thunder not merely of human wrath but of primitive human laughter. He has done murder by proclamations, and he has been answered by caricatures. He has made a massacre of children, and been made a figure of fun in a Christmas pantomime for the pleasure of other children. Precisely because his crime is tragic, his punishment is comic; the old popular paradox has returned.
~G.K. Chesterton: in The Uses of Diversity (1920)